Phillips Exeter Academyreview by MIT student. The academics at Phillips Exeter Academy are extremely strong. The Harkness system is remarkable; it made classes much more interesting for me, and I think I learned a lot more as a result. I think it worked particularly well in history, English, religion, and math classes (i.e. the humanities classes). Science didn't follow Harkness as closely, and that was fine, since I think the subject material is more factual and less discussion-based anyway. The Harkness math program deserves a special description. Basically, math classes at Exeter consist of problem-solving. Instead of working from textbooks, which derive all of the results and encourage students to memorize them for later use, Exeter math classes use their own "textbooks", which are sets of problems with no formulas or derivations. Every day for homework, students do about a page worth of problems (about 8-10 problems), and the next day they present them on the board in class, with the teacher helping out when they run into trouble or pointing out important insights along the way. This is, in my opinion, the best way to learn math, because students must actually make the discoveries themselves. The problems are designed to help the students make the discoveries by giving them some examples and asking questions for them to think about. The method really does depend on students doing the work though--if a student gets lazy and just copies the work, he won't learn and won't have anything to look back on. Classes are 13 students or fewer, and some classes in the higher levels are quite small. There is a ton of instructor attention; teachers are extremely helpful and willing to meet with students who are struggling, and because it's a boarding school and many faculty live on campus, students can actually go visit them in the evening for extra help. There is a fair amount of work--I'd say about 4-5 hours per night--so students will be busy.
I loved my life at Exeter; if I could go back and relive my experience I would without a second thought. The dorm experience was excellent. Students are placed in either dorms of 40-50 people, or in houses of 10-20 people. Each dorm or house (all of which were single-sex) is overseen by a group of faculty members, who enforce rules, plan house gatherings, and serve as the students' advisors in academics as well as in their lives. Additionally, responsible seniors in each dorm or house serve as proctors, ensuring that students are in the dorm on time and generally enforcing order. I lived in a house of 23 students and found it to be one of my favorite parts of Exeter life, because I formed very close friendships with my dormmates. We studied together at night in our rooms, ate together in the dining hall, hung out around campus playing frisbee or wiffleball, and generally lived our lives together. The dining facilities were also outstanding. I thought the food was quite good; and additionally, the staff there were extremely receptive to student feedback, buying new foods or sauces or adding to the salad bar if students wanted new things. The town of Exeter was quite safe; I don't recall any incidents during my three years at Exeter. Additionally, the Academy's safety and security squad was great about patrolling the campus and responding to any call. The town is quite small, although it does have a small number of stores and a larger number of eateries, almost all of which deliver. In terms of diversity, Exeter is quite successful at bringing in a diverse student body and in supporting it through cultural clubs and programming for minority students through the Dean of Multicultural Affairs office. There is less diversity in the faculty than in the student body, but this is an issue on which the Academy is currently focusing a great deal of attention.
Exeter's extracurricular offerings are excellent, both in terms of breadth and depth. There are hundreds of clubs, some that are mainly for fun (e.g. pirate club) and some that are serious, nearly professional, endeavors, such as the debate team, the campus radio station (WPEA), the school newspaper, the math team, and the social services organization. One of my favorite activities was my work for the school newspaper, The Exonian. It was a big operation: we published a large newspaper (generally over 16 pages, broadsheet size) every week, and we were proud of the fact that all of our content (news stories, features, opinions/editorials, sports coverage, cartoons) was produced by our own staff of about thirty regular writers and thirty editors. However, we got the job done week after week and had a lot of fun in the process; the Wednesday afternoons I spent in the Exonian office will remain among my fondest memories. Another activity of note is the math club. Exeter's math team is arguably the best in the nation, both in terms of awards garnered (first place in the American Regions Math League my senior year, and three first-place finishes at the Harvard-MIT Math Tournament in the past four years) and in terms of the training program in place. The club met twice a week (about four hours total) to practice solving problems, and the top competitors met every day at lunch to discuss Olympiad-level problems; this training schedule, and more importantly, the guidance of our coach, world-renowned math teacher Zuming Feng, helped our students train to be the best.